The title of Vinicio Capossela’s two-disk album translates as “sailors, prophets, and whales,” and if that makes you think of literature or the movies, there’s good reason. The lyrics to the 19 songs were inspired by Melville, Conrad, Celine, Dante and Homer, and the Old Testament. The soundscapes created by Capossela, his co-producer Taketo Gohara, and the multinational cast of musicians and singers, have the intimacy of a cinematic close-up and the grand scope of an epic. The film analogy also applies to the record’s production: making this ambitious work entailed a large cast and crew, multiple locations (it was recorded in several Italian cities and on the island of Ischia, and in Berlin, Barcelona, and Brooklyn, USA) and an auteur with the vision and artistic control to make it all cohere in a satisfying whole.
Did I say “satisfying?” That doesn’t begin to describe the record. It is, in short, a masterpiece, and Capossela’s best work to date. Born in Germany in 1965 to parents from the southern Italian region of Campania and based in Milan since 1987, Capossela is Italy’s most original and audacious singer-songwriter. He’s often described as “eccentric” but “brilliant maverick” is more apt. I’d go so far as “genius” – an honorific too promiscuously handed out these days, but not in this case. Capossela can write three-minute, hook-y pop tunes in a variety of genres, and also more unconventional pieces that don’t fit any genre, although they may contain elements of familiar ones. Jazz, blues, rock, Italian pop, southern Italian traditional music, vaudeville, Afro-Cuban idioms and Cape Verdean morna all figure in his work, but ultimately Capossela is his own genre.
Marinai, Profeti e Balene, released in Italy in 2011, has been re-configured for the international market: the songs appear in a different order than on the original. (There’s also a booklet with English translations of the lyrics and detailed production credits.) A representative of Ponderosa, the worldwide distributor, told me the order of the songs had been re-arranged to group the “American” material on one disk and the more “Mediterranean” and “Homeric” selections on the other. Nice idea conceptually, but not exactly accurate. There are “Mediterranean” numbers on the 13-track, supposedly “American” disk, and Melville-inspired ones, like “The Whiteness of the Whale,” on the six-track “Mediterranean” disk. A more plausible explanation is that a decision was made to group together the more accessible, tuneful stuff on Disk One and the stranger, more challenging material on the shorter Disk Two. Or that’s what a second Ponderosa rep told me.
The cover photo has a somewhat crazed-looking Capossela wearing a naval officer’s cocked hat and uniform, a calm, pale sea behind him. It’s the image of a seafarer about to embark on a voyage to unknown places, where he, alone and in the company of other naviganti, will encounter strange experiences, exotic creatures (human and otherwise) and himself, and his destiny.
Commander Capossela tells his wondrous tales in an understated, intimate voice that rarely rises above the conversational. He plays guitar, piano, harpsichord and kalimba; the crew handles guitars and keyboards, bass and percussion, horns, and an array of uncommon instruments -- marimbula, boulgari, bendir, Cretan lyra, gamelan, and something called a Boobam. Tom Waits has been a major influence on Capossela, and he has worked with two of Waits’ best-known collaborators, guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Greg Cohen. Capossela recruited them for Marinai, Profeti e Balene, but Ribot’s only on one track, the terrific opener, “Billy Budd,” along with Cohen; the bassist appears on several other selections. You might wish for more, especially from Ribot, but you don’t really miss them, given the stellar bunch of players Capossela has assembled. And then there are the amazing choruses -- the Coro degli Apocrifi, the Drunk Sailors Choir, Valeria Pilia and the Sardinian Women of Actores Alidos, and the Sorelle Marinetti.
Yet despite the numerous musicians and singers and the eclectic instrumentation, the record never sounds overstuffed. Capossela’s vessel, though fully loaded, moves with ease and grace.
The tracks encompass sea chanteys (“L’Oceano Oilala,” with its pennywhistle and hearty chorus of mates), hymn-like ballads (“The Grand Leviathan”), and Latin pop (“Octopus of Love,” with music by Joey Burns and John Covertino of Calexico and lyrics by Capossela). “The Madonna of the Shells,” inspired by southern Italian religious folklore, is both avant-garde (in its offbeat instrumentation) and traditional (with the appearance of the kind of brass band you’d expect to hear in the town square of a Mezzogiorno village). The effervescent “Prynti,” featuring those Marinetti sisters, recalls the 1950s Italian pop you might hear in a Fellini film. On “The Whiteness of the Whale” Capossela recites the apocalyptic lyrics in a hushed voice while the orchestra, playing the part of the ocean, swells, crests and recedes. “Aedo” and the Homeric-inspired “Calipso” boast some of the album’s most appealing melodies.
I’ve called Vinicio Capossela Italy’s most audacious singer-songwriter. But that sells him short. He’s one of most original talents from anywhere on the globe. And if Marinai, Profeti e Balene had been written and recorded in English, today’s global lingua franca, no doubt he’d be recognized as such, and this unique and visionary work would have been hailed by critics as one of the best albums of the past year.
George de Stefano on RootsWorld
The first steps
«If a period in which the early work started must be found, we can say that it accelerated at the end of the US tour, when I ended the recordings of the album «Da solo». During that journey, I have been in contact with a kind of America where you could still hear the presence of an epic coming from the Bible, a kin of Melville or Sherwood Anderson's America. I was reading their works at the time.»
These suggestions became real during Sestri Levante's Andersen Festival, whose topic, in 2008, was water. There, I held a reading-concert named «Stories of sailors, prophets and whales», I played on a small ship in the middle of the sea, at Silence Bay; the tracklist included new songs that were born expressively for that show, lyrics coming from Moby Dick or the Bible, with some music added, in the shape of a musical sermon. This unique hybrid form that joins song and narration got developed and many songs in «Marinai, profeti e balene» were shaped like this, like «I fuochi fatui», for instance. It is a song that breaks the usual standards of a song and becomes more of a "musical summoning". In other cases, the author added music to lyrics taken from Melville's, Céline's of the Bible's pages: the results were the songs «Il grande Leviatano», «Oceano oilalà», «Billy Bud», «Job» and «Pryntyl».
The show has been replied a few times and when Capossela actually started writing «Marinai, profeti e balene», by the beginning of 2010, he decided to keep the name of the project, broadening it to a series of episodes linked to literature, but more Mediterranean, ancestrals. If in the first cd you can hear Melville's atmospheres, the homeric imaginary and Dante's Ulysses build, in fact, the basis of the second part of the album.
Song by song
Il grande Leviatano
To fall into the belly of darkness, in the wet warmth of the great Leviathan (Hobbes? The showbiz?) where there is no virtue, no knowledge and not even sense of destiny. Solemn choirs make this Biblical vision ispired by Jona sound like a Puritan hymn. The song ends with an actual whale fish song: this way, the solemn choir turns into a human choir, a choir of working men who hunt the whale, instead of being eaten by it.
L'Oceano Oilalà (Rollin' the whale)
A jig to sing to get some bravery while the waves of the sea are getting bigger and bigger. In this song, you can listen to the Breton group Tinuviel, leaded by Guillaume Soweine, Caroline Tallone and the choir directed by David Muldoon (Naviglio's Tom Waits).
A fantasy musical from the abyss, Zigfried Folies in the style of a brothel from the 30s; the years in which Céline wrote a piece for either a ballet or a cartoon series called «Scandal in the abyss». The main character is a siren named Pryntyl: when she gets a pair of legs, she doesn't hesitate to use them, dancing and singing in sirens' language. The taste of swing grove was made by Antonio Marangolo, Jimmy Villotti and Ares Tavolazzi, who got together to record twenty years after the release of «All'una e trentacinque circa». The elegant choir is the work of the lovely Marinetti Sisters. Eventually, Vincenzo Vasi added his whole repertoir of fantasy animation sounds.
This octopus looking for love appeared in one of Calexico's albums: the band gave music to the movement of the octopus' limbs, but in this new version it is immerged in a more "liquid" sound, made up of mellotrons and clarinets instead of Mariachi trumpets.
This song is about the consequences of a mistake that cannot be avoided. It is also about weakness and the character you reveal when you have to choose. Wandering as the consequence of a mistake.
La bianchzza della balena
A nightmare turned into music by the hallucinated guitar moving forward through the shadows of polar ices. A nightmare that, as in the journey of Gordon Pym, pushes itself to the terrifying purity of white. The sinister sound of the nightmare is a work of a choir of white voices, of Asso Stefana's guitar with the help of the maestro Stefano Nanni.
A strong blues, a prison song, with execution chains and conviction drums. The acid guitar of Marc Ribot, Greg Cohen's double bass and the drums of Zeno De Rossi accompany the desires and fears of Billy Budd before he is sentenced. Billy, the nice sailor, who stands in the ship near the sky, in the highest part, is the symbol of the innocence that cannot defend itself in the face of a wrong justice.
I fuochi fatui
Destiny, like a whale, can be recognized by its tail: you can know it only when it is gone, or when something has happened. Solemn choirs accompany the Fate coming true. What compels us, like in a spell, to obey to a fate that seems to have been sealed before the birth of time? The moods alternate in actions and reflections until the final fight. The narrating voice of Ismael is Daniel Melingo's.
The complaint screamed against God's silence, against sufference without a cause and triumph without credit. The mutiny against the justiceless power that dominates our fate. Music starts as a psalm-style ballad between the rocks of Uz land and it grows in an electric hallucination, forming questions that won't get an answer. Only dust and ashes will be left. The wandering Jew Marc Ribot echoes Job's scream, with the nomad tribe of Xylouris. The lyrics are taken from Guido Ceronetti's translation of The Book of Job.
La lancia del Pelide
A song about the wounds left by love, the ones that only the beloved one can heal. The sharp blade is Psarantonis' lyra, that produces the compaint of the wound. The balm of healing is viola d'amore and the string quartet of Edoardo De Angelis.
The carcass of the whale Goliath is shown like in a freak show. The sound of the huge "mechanic orchestra" created by the Barcellona musicians Cabosanroque plays with the Barberia organ and accompany the exposure of the innocent monster.
The drunknes of the cylope is focused through the lens of wine. This is a song about getting nearer to what is different. The cyclope does not look like the men who eat bread, but he looks more like a peak that stays apart from the others. Electric guitars by Peplum, flutes by Mario Arcari, narrating voice by Psarantonis.
The harmony of the seven spheres studied by Keplero. The celestial movements played by the instruments (harp, strings, ondes) accompany, like constellations, the sailoring of the piano from the stone castle in the Homeric sea, until the underside of the sky. A suspended song, created around the bass, able to express the pain of the wait. The sideral distance that life puts among the destinies of lovers.
Recorded in Creta, with Psarantonis' children sitting around a circle and playing their instruments. It is a ballad coming from an old age, that draws from the time of the myth where there is no becoming. The aedo does not sing about his story, but about everybody's story. Suffer, then learn and learn to sing your pain.
La Madonna delle Conchiglie
At the time when gods still lived amongst men, every shipwrecked, every foreigner, had to be welcomed because a god could have been hidden inside him. Also wooden statues, restored by the sea, whose skin is painted in another colour. Back then, just as nowdays, it is easier to be welcomed as a God, rather than as a person. This song is inspired by Saint Restituta, who is worshipped in Ischia and by all the Madonnas who protect men going by sea. This carillon march is accompanied by a shell orchestra played by Mauro Ottolini, along ith a Baroque clavicembalo and a marching ship band.
The continuous changes in music follow the changing moods of the man who cries during the day on a cliff, as if it is his job, and during the night he enjoys the celebration of the senses, whose thrill cannot survive in the morning. The vegetation of the island where seasons never change is due to Mauro Refosco's percussions, the female choir is made of the voices of Actores Alidos. The music repeats so as to allude to the temptation of immortality. Immortality reached drinking ambrosia... Forgetting men, and men forgetting me.
An ancestral ballad with marimbas and bones. Psarantonis' lyra provokes the appearing of the great fortune teller who is asked if it is better to know or not to know. If our woman is loyal, if it is better to stay or leave. The fortune teller pays the price of not knowing the solitude to which he is bond. This song is a trip: at the end you understand that knowledge is nothing without faith.
Gothic choirs, high as ocean waves, accompany this quote claimed by Ulysses in Hell: you were not made to live as beasts. It is a solemn exortation to start the crazy flight of every new life.
The sirens love singing in sleepless nights, in those nights spent drinking beer when dawn does not seem to come, when we relive our life back, how it has been, how it should have been. Life that they are taking away from us while they are singing about it.
The sirens have the voice of Martinot waves played by the French Nadia Rastimandresy, of the Maggini viola played by Danilo Rossi and of the soft singing.